Sunday, January 4, 2009

The Rise of the Meritocracy and Lani Guinier

I was inspired to make this post by some interesting stuff going on Blue Lab Coats as a response to some postings over at Young Female Scientist. The basic gist of the discussion is about whether the hiring practices of academic departments is subjective/objective, systematic/arbitrary, and whether that is good/bad.

Several years ago at my Grad Institution I went to a talk by Lani Guinier. If you don't know who she is, you might remember that she was nominated by Bill Clinton to be the civil rights chief for the Justice Department (and the first African American one at that). There was a media firestorm over some of her stances on affirmative action and he withdrew her nomination not long afterwards. Either way, she is a professor of law at Harvard Law School and has some controversial but provocatively interesting views on power, equality, and "the majority."

Anyway, so I went to her talk, and she talked about how her son had his 7th birthday party and there were both boys and girls at the party. At some point all the children played some sort of game, boys against girls, and the girls won, hands down. She then wondered, "who made up this game?" And the answer was....the girls. I forget exactly the rules of the game but it required both patience and coordination - something 7-year old boys just generally don't have as much of as 7-year old girls. And so the girls won.

She used this as the basis of her talk - that we as a society have all these metrics to measure the "quality" of people, but that honestly, you have to look at what the metrics are actually measuring, who designed the metrics, and whether they actually line up with desired characteristics to see if the metrics are remotely worthwhile. For example, she says in law school, the superstar students are the ones who raise their hands early and often and wax ad nauseum about whatever. The measurement for being a standout law student is basically to be a pompous ass who likes to hear themselves speak. She said that she's noticed, though, that what tends to happen is many competent and thoughtful future lawyers are sitting and composing their thoughts into a response before they raise their hands to speak, but by the time they are done, Loquacious Ass has gone on so many tangents that the subject has changed and the moment has passed, and they put their hands down. She asked, is this really what we want? We can measure this way but does this line up with what we hope to get out of our lawyers? If not, we better line up the rewards/merit system more with what we desire out of future lawyers.

She then brought up The Rise of the Meritocracy, a book written by Michael Young in 1958. The book is a dystopian satire about a future society based solely on "merit", a function of IQ and effort. The fundamental point of the book is that a society based on merit is kidding themselves - the people in charge tend to make things that only the elite can access keys to obtaining merit. The word "meritocracy" is meant to be a pejorative joke, like saying, "I'm not racist, but I only like white people," or "I'm an equal opportunity employer, but I only hire exceptional talent...people who speak Latin, can quote Shakespeare, and know how to properly eat an artichoke." I mean seriously, meritocracies make us feel better but let's be honest, there is no such thing as a totally unbiased evaluative metric because the metric is always in the eye of of the evaluator, which obviously is not totally objective.

So this gets to what brought on this post, a discussion of academic hiring practices. There are people out there who argue against hiring preferences for women because then "more qualified" people are left in the dust. But what does more qualified REALLY mean? I mean, obviously, plucking someone off the street - they would be unqualified. But do you really know if a guy has one more High Impact Paper then he is definitely "more qualified"? Qualified to do what? Contribute to the diversity of the department? Get funding? Teach undergrads? Mentor graduate students? If a department is committed to diversifying its faculty perhaps in approach, thought process, gender, whatever, then ABSOLUTELY hiring a someone whose cardinal publication number is less than someone else's is NOT a sacrifice in quality because you are hiring someone to do exactly what your objective is.

What is a department's objective? Think of it this way, let's say this year the department would like to hire someone in Subfield A, though applicants from other subfields may apply. Let's say Applicant X has N publications in Subfield A and is a good candidate, while applicant Y has N+2 publications in Subfield B and is also a good candidate, maybe even a little bit better. But the department really wants to expand Subfield A, and so they go with Candidate X. Does that mean they have "sacrificed quality", by not hiring the guy with more papers? I don't think so - they have merely gone with the decision that better satisfies their stated objectives.

So if a department values diversity and wants to diversify, and actively seeks out a qualified woman, I don't think that's in any way bad. It's not like they're going to hire a dumbass off the street just because she possesses two X chromosomes.

On the other hand, there are also women (like YFS) who complain about the lack of systematic evaluations because it goes against women (as opposed to people described above who complain about the lack of systematic evaluations so that a hiring decision can favor a woman). How can a woman prove she's qualified and/or better than a man if there's not objective measuring stick? I'm not sure about this one - my gut tells me that if there is an Old Boys Network in place at an institution, there's no getting around it - Grumpy Old Professor is going to hire Future Grumpy Old Professor.

At the same time, I believe in a bit of wiggle room in order to hire people who "fit" and/or that you like. There is the innocuous version of this wiggle room, wherein you keep out the scary, socially inept, crazy incommunicado types. There is also the more sinister type, wherein you keep out the women/minorities because they "just don't fit." There are always two sides to the same coin.

As of now, I think I fall into the "I like wiggle room" camp because I believe, particularly at institutions that value both quality and diversity, I can ALSO win in the likeability/fit category. And I would hate to be at a place where everyone was just an automaton and there was no departmental community.

Maybe this will come back to bite me in the ass someday when I actually try to find a job, but for now, that's how I feel. Meritocracies are often a joke and wiggle room is good.


ScientistMother said...

very cool post. I wish could say something witty to spark a cool convo, but my brain is only slowly inching back

PhizzleDizzle said...

Thanks SM! I'm glad Monkey is better though :).

Hermitage said...

I know I'm only a 1st year nublet, but I've seen many instances where minorities have pounded their way thru the bullshit to a good faculty position in spite of the "Old White Dude" wall that I too, come down on the side of 'wiggle room is good.' Because there are many scary scary, brilliant people that no one could pay me enough money to be a grad student for.